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Hugh McKean, top Republican in Colorado House, dies of heart attack at 55

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean gives remarks on Jan. 12, 2022 in Denver at the start of Colorado’s General Assembly’s 2022 session. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun)
The lawmaker from Loveland was first elected to the legislature in 2016

Colorado House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican known for his warm personality and work to try to build legislative consensus at the state Capitol, has died. He turned 55 on Oct. 27.

The Colorado House GOP caucus confirmed McKean’s death, which shocked the political world, on Sunday. Roger Hudson, the caucus’ deputy chief of staff, said he was found dead Sunday morning after complaining of feeling unwell the day before.

The Larimer County Coroner’s Office said McKean died of an acute myocardial infarction, colloquially known as a heart attack. The manner of death, after a forensic autopsy, was listed as natural causes.

“Hugh McKean was an amazing man,” Nicole Packwood-Means, a legislative analyst for the Colorado House GOP caucus, wrote on Twitter. “He cared for every person he encountered, including his whole staff. Not a day went by when he wasn’t smiling and making the day better for the people around him.”

First elected to the legislature in 2016, McKean spent the past two years doing the incredibly difficult work of trying to repair a very fractured House GOP caucus that was split between hard-line conservatives and Republicans who wanted to find a way to win back a majority in the chamber by wooing over the state’s Democratic-leaning electorate.

McKean’s work often made him a target of the conservative hard-liners. He easily won a contentious primary in June against Republican Austin Hein, a former House staffer who worked for McKean’s predecessor, then-House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, and then for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a hard-line gun-rights group.

Neville stepped down as House minority leader in 2020 when it became clear he wouldn’t be selected again by his caucus to lead them. Instead, House Republicans chose McKean as their leader, but some of Neville’s allies continued to battle with McKean over the direction of the caucus.

McKean, the father of two adult children, was known in the legislature as an even-keeled bridge builder, working to find ways to influence Democratic policy even as Republicans remained in the minority.

Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown and House Minority Leader Hugh McKean speak to reporters during a “Commitment to Colorado” news conference at a Sinclair station on Aug. 9, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Hudson said McKean had a full plate as he worked to grow the House GOP’s ranks in the November election, form a policy platform for the upcoming 2023 legislative session and build a new home. He attended a rally Saturday with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea.

“He was doing all these things at the exact same time, so I expressed some concern,” Hudson said. “Hugh was – I hate using the past tense – had the most wicked sense of humor. If there was a way to take a bad situation and make it dark humor, Hugh found it. It made everybody just find the light in everything. I adored this man. His loss is something I can’t even quantify for you.”

If Republicans win more seats in the House on Nov. 8, it will be because of McKean’s hard work, Hudson said.

“Hugh did that,” he said.

The House GOP caucus said in a news release: “Hugh was fiercely passionate about two things in his extraordinary life: serving the great state of Colorado and spending time with his family, whom he adored – Aiden McKean, 21, Hanna McKean, 23, and his dearest partner and friend, Amy Parks.”

Colorado Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown also mourned the loss.

“Whenever I saw him or spoke to him, he had an encouraging word and was ready to lift others up,” Burton Brown said in a statement. “Whenever I think of Hugh McKean, I’ll think of his smile and his positive outlook on life.”

Democrats in the legislature were mourning McKean’s death on Sunday, too.

“We will miss his kindness, the joy that he brought to the capitol every day, and the care that he showed every person he ever met,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said. “Hugh was the very definition of a statesman – a genuinely nice guy who always wanted the best for our state and his constituents. His integrity and the deep respect with which he treated every member of the House were a model for every lawmaker he worked with. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Democratic Caucus are with Leader McKean’s family and loved ones.”

State Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat, said she will miss McKean’s kindness, humor and “his smiles.”

“Although we didn’t always agree politically, he was always a respectful, fair legislator who often crossed the aisle,” she wrote on Twitter.

Connor Randall, who used to work as a nonpartisan legislative staffer at the Capitol, said McKean was always making sure that he and his colleagues were doing OK.

“McKean would find time after committees and debates to pop in and ask each of us how we were doing, about our families – if we needed anything,” Randall posted on social media. “A genuinely good man and friend to everyone he worked with.”

McKean, who was raised outside of Philadelphia, was a member of the Loveland City Council before becoming a state lawmaker. He was elected to the council in 2009. He also worked as a general contractor.

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean gives remarks on Jan. 12 in Denver at the start of Colorado’s General Assembly’s 2022 session. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun)

McKean was unopposed in the general election. That means a vacancy committee made up of Republicans in his Loveland-based House District 51 will select his replacement.

McKean’s death comes as the No. 2 Republican in the House GOP caucus, Rep. Tim Geitner of Falcon, the assistant House minority leader, resigned his position early. Geitner wasn’t running for reelection.

A vacancy committee called to replace Geitner on Saturday was unsuccessful, after many committee members refused to participate.

If the committee doesn’t replace Geitner by Nov. 7, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis will appoint a new House District 19 representative to serve until early January. Monument Mayor Don Wilson, a Republican, is the sole candidate running for Geitner’s seat, which will be House District 20 under new legislative boundaries that take effect in 2023.

McKean spoke with Polis as recently as last night about the situation, according to Hudson, the deputy chief of staff.

“I am devastated to hear of Minority Leader Hugh McKean’s sudden passing,” Polis said in a written statement. “A family man and a true public servant, Minority Leader McKean had a knack for making everyone feel like they were the most important person in the room. Minority Leader McKean cared deeply for his constituents, always had time for a conversation or a laugh, and truly worked every day to build a better future for every Coloradan. As a dad myself, I can’t imagine the pain his children and family are feeling at this difficult time. We are sending thoughts and prayers to all of Hugh’s loved ones and take comfort knowing his legacy will be felt in Colorado for years to come.”

Planning has begun for a memorial service to remember McKean. A date hasn’t been set.

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.